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Salt Lake City rises above many other American cities for solar energy

SALT LAKE CITY — A national environment organization says Salt Lake City is a rising star in solar energy development, as Utah's capital city has seen the number of completed projects grow from dozens in 2007 to hundreds in 2017.

On Wednesday, Environment America ranked the city No. 10 among its "Solar Stars" in terms of megawatts of solar energy used per capita last year compared to 70 other U.S. cities.

"Solar is booming," said Tyler Poulson, sustainability program manager for the city.

SLCSolarLeader Heather Tuttle

According to the rankings, Salt Lake City rises above other major cities including Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, but is eclipsed by Honolulu, Las Vegas and Denver.

"We've seen solar grow a lot within city limits, primarily on residential rooftops," Poulson said.

Poulson's department submitted city data from last year to Environment America, which used the data to determine Salt Lake City's ranking.

The citywide numbers show exponential growth in solar energy over the past 15 years. In 2009, 40 solar projects were completed as compared to 677 in 2017; 645 of those new solar installations were residential, and 32 belonged to commercial projects, Poulson said.

"There's kind of this even broader story about Utah generally. We're still one of the top 10 solar states," Poulson explained.

The Solar Energy Industries Association ranks Utah eighth nationally in its solar energy usage. According to statistics from the association, more than 6,000 people in the state work in the solar energy industry.

"I think that solar's been very visible in Utah for the past few years and has grown very quickly," said Kate Bowman, solar project coordinator for Utah Clean Energy.

She believes several factors have contributed to this trend, including a state tax credit first enacted in 2001 for residential and commercial properties.

The state Legislature recently reinstated the residential solar tax credit, giving households $1,600 in nonrefundable tax credit that will slowly decrease until it is phased out in 2025, according to the Governor's Office of Energy Development website.

There is also a 30 percent federal tax credit for residential renewable energy that will decrease until it expires in 2021.

Poulson said Salt Lake City officials believe these tax incentives, though they won't last forever, "provide a reasonable glide path for sustained solar development."

Scott Cramer, president of Salt Lake-based residential solar energy equipment installer Go Solar Group, said solar energy "fits the mentality" of many people in the community.

"Residential solar power is one of the best ways to reverse the air quality issues that Salt Lake City faces," he explained. "The Salt Lake City demographic loves to take control of its surroundings and the outdoors, and Utahns owning the power they produce via solar jives with that lifestyle."

The Beehive State has seen "steady growth" in renewable energy over the past decade.

"I think that there are a lot of exciting things happening in the clean energy industry right now," Bowman said.

The cost of solar energy is falling, and new clean energy technologies "can work together" to modernize how we use electricity, she explained.

The Salt Lake City sustainability program manager agrees.

Improved technologies, falling costs and education have led to what Poulson sees as "a pretty clear signal that residents prefer clean, renewable energy."

"People want more wind, and they want more solar. There's just a strong social preference for renewable energy," he said.

"We envision solar continuing to grow, more and more rooftops to have solar panels going forward, and we're certainly encouraging that. ...We're cheering on what's happening," he said.

The city is working with Rocky Mountain Power to find ways to add "more large-scale renewable resources" to the grid and hopes to have 100 percent renewable energy for the community's electricity supply by 2032, Poulson added.

Rocky Mountain Power is reducing the output of its other sources of energy — including hydroelectric plants, coal plants and natural gas plants — to make room for solar energy, according to Dave Eskelsen, a spokesman for the company.

Rocky Mountain Power has invested in a solar power plant and has contracts with other solar power plant owners in the state.

Low-cost solar energy has helped Rocky Mountain adjust the output of its power plants.

"It’s becoming a bigger part of our resource mix than ever before, and we think that will continue,” Eskelsen added.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated Utah Clean Energy's solar project coordinator as Katie Bowman. Her name is actually Kate Bowman.